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African Cyclists Try to Make the Continent More Bike-Friendly

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Wearing bright colors, Andy Costa rides his bicycle in the streets of Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast. He carefully makes his way through the city, trying to avoid cars and trucks.

Africa's many crowded cities make it the world's deadliest continent for people who walk and for cyclists – those riding bicycles. That information comes from the World Health Organization.

Many African cities have bad roads and no special lanes for bikes.

That may soon change.

The COVID-19 health crisis has, in some ways, helped African cycling activists. The need to avoid crowded public transportation systems has made government officials more willing to listen to these activists.

Last month, Ivorian officials told Andy Costa he could help plan bike lanes in part of Abidjan. Costa had spent around 10 years campaigning for such lanes.

"They [cyclists] are part of the solution," said Jacques Gabriel Ehouo, mayor of the central business district of Plateau. He spoke to the Reuters news agency after meeting with the cycling activist.

"Cycling can contribute to the fight against COVID-19 because social distancing is naturally respected," he said.

Costa has high hopes.

"The goal is to make Africa and the continent cyclable," he said.

The Ivorian environmental activist Andy Costa also known as the cycling ambassador in Africa, pedals his bike among cars in a street of the central business district of Plateau in Abidjan, Ivory Coast September 4, 2020. Picture taken September 4, 2020. REUTERS/Luc Gnago
The Ivorian environmental activist Andy Costa also known as the cycling ambassador in Africa, pedals his bike among cars in a street of the central business district of Plateau in Abidjan, Ivory Coast September 4, 2020. Picture taken September 4, 2020. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

A lack of bike lanes and good roads is not the only problem. Kenya's capital Nairobi, for example, began expanding bicycle lanes five years ago. Several more are being built in the heart of Nairobi's business district.

But cars often drive into the lanes. And work crews do not always make necessary repairs.

Cycling is still dangerous, said Cyprine Odada, an organizer for the Nairobi office of Critical Mass. Critical Mass is an international alliance of cycling organizations that campaign for better road safety.

Recently, Odada and hundreds of others cycled slowly through Nairobi's streets. They did the ride in memory of a friend who was killed while cycling. Odada is asking Kenya's parliament to improve legal protections for cyclists.

Pandemic's effect on cycling

The COVID-19 pandemic might help. The disease has fueled people's interest in cycling, Odada said, partly because of a government decision about public minibuses. The government ordered minibus operators to leave some seats open for social distancing. But the buses, usually very crowded, are the only kind of transportation that many Kenyans can afford.

Odada noted that "With COVID, we've had a lot of beginners reaching out, people who want to know about how safe it is to cycle in Nairobi."

In Cape Town, South Africa, cycling activist Lebogang Mokwena used to get two or three questions a week about teaching people to ride. Since the pandemic arrived, she receives them almost every day.

Mokwena has taught about 200 women to ride bicycles in the past three years, she said. Some of the women do not have bikes. Some belong to cultures where women do not traditionally ride. Many of the women believe biking is a sport, not a form of transportation, Mokwena said.

"Black women tend not to be cyclists, not because they don't want to, but because they've never had the opportunity to learn," she said. She only learned to cycle at the age of 30 after moving to New York.

Mokwena is Cape Town's "Bicycle Mayor," a name given by the cycling advocacy group Bycs. The group also has "mayors" in Nairobi, the Ugandan capital Kampala, and Gaberone in Botswana. These "mayors" build cycling communities and work with local governments.

Ivorian activist Costa says his main aim is to change the idea that cycling is for the rural poor. His organization, 'MyDream for Africa,' makes videos with famous people such as football star Didier Drogba. The videos advocate for cycling.

"The bicycle is the transport of the future," Costa said.

I'm John Russell.

Loucoumane Coulibaly reported on this story for Reuters news agency. John Russell adapted the story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

Words in This Story

bicycle – n. a 2-wheeled vehicle that a person rides by pushing on foot pedals

lane – n. a part of road that is marked by painted lines and that is for a single line of vehicles

mayor – n. an official elected or appointed as chief of a city or town

district – n. part of a country, city, or town; an area established by a government for official government business

contribute – v. to give or provide something

afford – v. being able to pay the cost of something

tend – v. used to describe what often happens or what someone often does or is likely to do — followed by to + verb

advocacy – n. the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal; the act or process of showing support for something

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